Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep stops in Zapata, Texas, in the latest installment of our Borderland series. Zapata is the hometown of the lead singer of Intocable, a band popular on both sides of the border. Ricky Munoz explains how listening to a mix of Mexican music, country hits and rock bands like Def Leppard while growing up influenced his band.
STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Early in our road trip along the U.S.-Mexico border we pulled into Zapata, Texas.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
INSKEEP: A dam near here turns the Rio Grande into a reservoir and Zapata stands beside the blue water: neighborhoods of modest ranch houses, and one oversized brown building. That building is the headquarters of Grupo Intocable. Intocable means "Untouchable."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "Y TE VAS")
INSKEEP: We were playing their music on the way in - songs of love, and lost love, and painful goodbyes. We were planning to meet the lead singer who grew up right in this town.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "Y TE VAS")
INSKEEP: When we reached the recording studio, a man in sunglasses introduced himself as lead singer Ricky Munoz.
: How's everything going? How was your trip down here?
INSKEEP: It's been great so far, we're driving the whole length of the border. So we started Brownsville, we're going west. We were in Laredo last night then we came back for you.
: Well, I feel honored now.
INSKEEP: His music is heard across much of Latin America. As we traveled the Borderland, we heard Intocable on the radio, and saw posters for them everywhere. Ricky Munoz is a big star, and also an American, but said he'd rarely done an interview in English until we arrived. We suggested a drive around his hometown.
: Let's do it.
INSKEEP: And in his black pickup truck, with camouflage hunting vests in the back, we drove past the Dairy Queen Munoz remembered visiting as a teenager. He says he dreamed, back then, of being a music star. He and his friends held a plate sale - selling food their families made - to pay for their first recording, which drew from what they'd heard on the radio.
: What's good about being in a border town, we had the best of both worlds, man. Growing up, you know, we would hear American radio, where you had like top 40. You had the country radio, and then you had the Mexican radio stations.
INSKEEP: Intocable began playing conjunto - music of the Rio Grande valley, traditionally a small group, the accordion, a twelve-stringed guitar called the bajo sexto. And they began mixing in electric guitar, hints of the 80s, ELO.
: Nobody was doing like, Def Leppard on a Mexican song, you know what I'm saying?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOS FALTO HABLAR")
INSKEEP: Intocable's latest album is "En Peligro de Extincion" - "In Danger of Extinction." They produced it in their recording studio in Zapata, where we continued our conversation with Ricky Munoz. We sat beneath a row of lights on the wall. Each light fixture was shaped like an antelope skull, with the eyes gleaming red. Cases in the corners held the group's Grammy awards. Intocable doesn't write their own songs but they add their own style.
: There's only so many ways you can write don't leave me, it hurts me, I love you. But if you make a good melody, it never gets old. People, they always wanna hear the word I love you. You know, if they're hurting they want to hear that good hurting song.
INSKEEP: Why's the pain in there?
: I don't know.
INSKEEP: It's about lost love. It's about a love that you have but it pains you. It pains me to leave you, but I'm leaving you. It pains me that you're leaving me.
: It's kind of like country music, you know? It's part of the genre, I think. People like good drinking songs, man. They're drinking songs. Go to a show, bring me that tequila, bring me that tequila. This is my song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TE DESEO LO MEJOR")
INSKEEP: In the past year, Intocable has played in Louisville, Kentucky, Chicago, and also Medellin, Colombia. In the years before that they played inside a cockfighting ring in Mexico and also at halftime of a Dallas Cowboys game. Now, when I read about the fact that you played at a Dallas Cowboys game, that was meaningful to me, because I grew up in Indiana and I grew up a Cowboys fan. I mean, that is so central to American culture.
: That was awesome. You know, growing up and always being a Cowboys fan, you know, it was kind of like - to us, that was more like the religion. Yeah, I'm not saying it was good. We wouldn't go to mass on Sunday but we would watch the Cowboys every Sunday.
INSKEEP: Wherever there are people of Mexican decent, Intocable finds an audience, which in some cases has started to spread.
: Sometimes we have a run of the mill, you know, there's a white boy in the crowd, you know, sometimes. Like we'll play, like, for example Nashville, sometimes there's a white guy, like, standing there, and, you know, sticking out there like a sore thumb, you know.
INSKEEP: Looks like me, perhaps.
: Exactly. And after the show they come and somehow, you know, they met probably this Mexicana senorita, and they knew our music, you know. And they say I don't understand a single word you're singing, but I guess they can relate to our music because it has that rock flavor, that country favor, and it does speak like, I guess, to the white people, in some weird way.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FUERTE NO SOY")
INSKEEP: In recent years, though, there was one boundary the group was reluctant to cross. It was the actual U.S.-Mexico frontier. In 2010, they were playing in the northern Mexican city of Monterrey when a panic started at the concert. Five people were trampled to death. Violence in northern Mexico was so intense this border band had to avoid Mexican towns near the border.
But just lately things have improved, and as we spoke with Ricky Munoz, he was preparing his return to a Mexican city on the Rio Grande, a border town with a terrifying reputation.
: We're on tour right now. We're actually on the road. We go to Juarez, Chihuahua. You know, we're talking about going to a border town where it's a little - we haven't been there, like, in five, maybe more, five, six years.
INSKEEP: When are you going to be in Juarez?
: I'm going to be in Juarez Saturday.
INSKEEP: We're going to be in Juarez on Saturday.
: There you go.
INSKEEP: Even as we were traveling the border, so was Intocable. And we agreed we would meet again in a few days, in the great border metropolis. We'll hear what happened in the days ahead.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And with Linda Wertheimer, I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.